Bits and pieces

Time for another “let’s start the weekend right” post, by clearing out some bits and pieces.

First up, a video left by commenter Erik that could serve as a meditative aid: the life of a baby hummingbird, from hatching to fledging. It’s 11:30 minutes long, which is more than most folks might want, but…you’d be surprised how it sucks you in. Of course I’m a sucker for hummingbirds anyway (and miss them terribly here in the Old World), but this video is soothing in a way most are not. Not to mention that the accompanying music is one of my favorite guitar pieces, the Concerto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo.

Also: every time mama fed her baby, I cringed. How that little thing didn’t get abdominal punctures, I have no idea.


Next up: I thought there was *a* peacock spider, but it turns out there is a whole raft of them, with 38 formally named so far and another 25 in the pipeline. And we know about them because of one man.

In large part thanks to Otto’s efforts in documenting them (check out, there are now some 58 known species of peacock spider. The two most recently discovered, from south-east Queensland, are Maratus sceletus, nicknamed Skeletorus (above), and Maratus jactatus, which goes by the nickname Sparklemuffin (below).

Sparklemuffin is clearly, hands down, the BEST NAME EVER for a spider. I may also try it on my wife as a pet name just to see what happens.

The photo below is not of a Sparklemuffin. To see what that one looks like, go read the article at New Scientist and prepare to give your cute meter a workout.

Peacock spider


In the category of “Holy Cow I Did Not Know That,” the anatomical structure that many fish use to suck in their prey is also the basis of the anatomical structure that tetrapods (including us) use to swallow. The all-important hyoid bone is the key, but we had to develop a muscular tongue to go with it, because while sucking in prey works great in water, it doesn’t work so well in air.

How did that original structure, dependent on a water medium, develop into what we have?

Mudskippers have one answer. They can swallow food on dry land, by creating a “tongue” made of water. Find out how here.


Finally, for the map lovers, check out this bizzaro world map of Pangea, the supercontinent that formed 300 million years ago (give or take a few) before breaking apart a hundred million years later and scattering across the globe.

Modern pangea

Mapmaker Massimo Pietrobon took modern political boundaries, along with geographical formations that didn’t exist in Pangea’s time (rivers, lakes, continental and island borders), and placed them where they would have been when Pangea existed. It’s a mashup guaranteed to make your head spin.

Also, be sure to click that image, because the full-size version is marvelous. I note that we here in Portugal could just step across to Canada.

Happy weekend, all.

Posted in biology, science, wildlife | 5 Comments

Boa Páscoa

I love Easter in Portugal. Our tradition of many years now is to attend the Festa das Tochas in São Brás, followed by the Mãe Soberana Pequena here in Loulé. Wall-to-wall pageantry, music, beauty…what’s not to like?

I’ve written about the Festa das Tochas before, and in half an hour I need to dash out for the Mãe Soberana parade, so I’ll keep this one short and simply post my favorite photo from the morning.

Priest photographing the parade

In the middle of the parade in São Brás, this priest took a moment to whip out his camera and grab a few photos. Yes, he is representing the Church during this very old and traditional procession, but by heaven those flowers were beautiful and he was going to get a picture. So he did.

And so did I.

Posted in culture, Portugal | 4 Comments

Best April Fools’ joke this year

And the award for this year’s best April Fools’ joke goes to…

CERN, for its announcement that its researchers had confirmed the existence of the Force.

Though four fundamental forces—the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force and gravity—have been well documented and confirmed in experiments over the years, CERN announced today the first unequivocal evidence for the Force. “Very impressive, this result is,” said a diminutive green spokesperson for the laboratory.

I laughed out loud in several places, though my favorite part might be the journal article titled “May the Force be with EU.”

Go read the whole thing.

(Hat tip to Alma.)

Posted in humor | 1 Comment

How speakers make sound and other cool animated graphics

Want to lose some time today? Check out and its wildly entertaining gifs explaining how various things work in our world. I happened to stumble on the explanation of how speakers make sound, and was hooked from the very beginning.

Speaker parts

Here is a frozen screen grab of just half of the first image on the page. The other half is a cutaway, unexploded image of a speaker — and all of the parts that move, in both halves of the image, are indeed moving. My first thought was, “If I smoked a joint first, I could probably stare at this for two hours.” As it was, I stared for about ten minutes.

The image above might look a little complicated, but it’s the whole speaker. Below it, each individual part (or group of parts) is illustrated and explained in its own section. Yes, those parts also move. My point about the joint stands.

If exploded diagrams of speakers don’t do it for you, check out the page on tarantulas (the mastication gif is mesmerizing), or in a different category, learn how the Colt 1911 .45 pistol works, from the parts of a bullet to the spring-loaded magazine to the exact workings of the ejector. There are jet engines and car engines and flat screen displays and oh, my heavens, the moonwalk. No, not the one in 1969. The Michael Jackson one.

Go check out this site. But make sure you don’t have anything else to do first, because once you fall in, you’ll be gone a while.

Posted in biology, tech | 1 Comment

Jupiter, destroyer (and savior) of worlds


It has long been known that the advanced life on Earth may owe its existence to Jupiter, whose hulking presence and massive gravity well have probably saved our planet from many an asteroid collision. Not only has Jupiter attracted and destroyed asteroids that may otherwise have collided with Earth, but it has also flung asteroids entirely out of our solar system. Jupiter is the great guardian, protecting our little planet from the sort of repeated collisions that would have set back the development of life over and over again.

Now two scientists are postulating that Jupiter (and Saturn, in a secondary role) may be responsible for the very existence of Earth itself—because it destroyed the first generation of planets in the inner system, leaving a debris ring that later formed a second generation farther from the sun.

In the last two decades, planet-hunting has reached new heights, and astronomers have studied nearly 2,000 planets in other systems. It turns out that our system is pretty weird.

The typical planetary system is made up of a few super-Earths — rocky planets up to 10 times the mass of Earth — orbiting much closer to their stars than Mercury does the sun. These super-Earths are usually not only rich in rock, but also in so-called volatile materials that easily vaporize when heated.

This means that super-Earths “tend to have very thick and massive atmospheres with pressures that exceed that of the Earth by factors of hundreds, if not thousands,” lead study author Konstantin Batygin, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, told In comparison, “the atmospheres of our terrestrial planets are exceptionally thin.”

Moreover, planetary systems that possess giant planets similar to Jupiter and Saturn typically have them much closer to their stars than in the solar system. Giant worlds known as hot Jupiters, whose orbits are only about one-tenth of the distance from Mercury to the sun, are some of the alien worlds that scientists have seen most often.

In attempting to explain the anomaly that is us, Batygin and co-author Gregory Laughlin gamed out a scenario called the Grand Tack. In this version of our early solar system, Jupiter formed, then migrated in toward the sun. There, its massive bulk and gravity destroyed the first generation of smaller, rocky planets—the ones orbiting extremely close to the sun, where the inferno of heat would have precluded the formation of any advanced life as we know it.

Once Saturn formed, it drew Jupiter back out, leaving the shattered remnants of those early super-Earths to reform into the second generation of inner planets. These were much farther out than the first, since the bulk of the debris ring closer to the sun would have spiraled in and been vaporized. Because they formed later, farther from the sun, and from a different set of material than their predecessors…

This would explain why Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are younger than the outer planets, and why they are both smaller and have much thinner atmospheres than inner worlds seen in other planetary systems.

Jupiter and Saturn have always fascinated me due to their size, beauty, and the awesomeness of their satellites, but now I have a whole new reason. They might be responsible for us.

Posted in astronomy | 2 Comments

Pantsers and planners

Every now and then, when I post something over on my Chronicles of Alsea blog that I think will have broader appeal, I’ll pop a link over here. Today’s post is on pantsers and planners.

Authors generally divide themselves into two groups: the pantsers and the planners (also called outliners or plotters). Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants, letting the narrative carry them. They may not know the ending of the story until they write it.

Planners meticulously outline their story and know where it’s going from the first word. They don’t often get stuck in a “oh crap, what’s next?” moment because they’ve already figured out what’s next.

And never the twain shall meet (or at least, hardly ever). They’re a bit like prescriptivists and descriptivists in the grammar wars: if you have both groups at a party, there should probably be a lot of alcohol and no ripe fruit.

Read the rest here.

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This ‘n’ that

While working hard on deadlines, I kept tossing interesting things into a folder and thinking I’d blog them later. That folder needs a good cleaning, so here’s a link dump to start off your weekend.


In a classic example of “science because we were curious,” researchers have discovered the mechanics behind the opening of a lily blossom. Turns out that the petals grow longer at the edges than they do in the middle. That puts stress on the bud, which eventually pops it open. The BBC has more explanation and a slow-motion video.


Also in the BBC, and under the category of “science made possible by how freaking tiny transmitters are these days,” the full migration route of the northern wheatear has been revealed at last. Until now, no one knew where these Arctic birds spent the winters. Turns out that northern wheatears, which weigh 25 grams (0.8 ounces), manage to fly 30,000 km (18,640 miles) from their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra to sub-Saharan Africa. The daily distances they travel are staggering: an average of 290 km per day (180 miles) for those coming from Alaska.

Best quote from one of the researchers: “It seems that bird migration is limited by the size of the Earth. If the planet was larger, they would probably migrate even further.”

Little birds kick butt.


Here’s what happens when you mount a camera on a four-wheel drive mini-buggy and drive it into a pride of lions. The buggy didn’t survive, but the camera did and got some amazing photos.


I first heard Sarah Brightman as Christine in Phantom of the Opera, and fell in love with her voice then. She’s a rare opera talent, able to reach up and easily slide those high notes on a shelf, as if it took no effort at all.

Turns out that her greatest dream wasn’t to be an opera singer, though. It was to go to outer space.

Sarah brightman001 640x502

One has enabled the other. Brightman’s career has given her the means to purchase a $52 million ticket on a Soyuz spacecraft to spend ten days on the International Space Station. Having passed all of the medical tests, she’s been in 16-hour days of training since January to prep for her flight in September. She even has her own mission patch, which you can see here.


Meanwhile, back on Earth, some citizens of Hamburg, Germany have declared it’s “peeback time” on public urinators. Tired of the mess caused by men peeing on building walls, a group of activists have coated some buildings with a superhydrophobic paint that redirects the urine stream.

Peeback time

Signs warning of the peeback have been posted in some of these booby-trapped places…but not all of them. The explanatory video is pretty hilarious.


I could have sworn I blogged this one ages ago, but a search doesn’t turn anything up. Check out ten continuous minutes of dominoes falling—275,000 of them—including a world record spiral and some fairly brilliant tricks. Not everything works exactly as planned, which makes it more fun. And some of it is obviously meant for specialty audiences, but the sheer complexity of the set-up is mind-blowing.

That’s it for today’s link dump, but there’s more in the folder…

Posted in astronomy, biology, culture, Europe, life, science, video | 11 Comments

Those Scots are a different sort

Last Sunday, the owner of a Loch Ness tour company stepped outside to snap some photos of the “beautiful sky.” John Alasdair MacDonald (could there be a more Scottish name?) then captured a once-in-a-lifetime shot when a brilliant meteor flashed across the sky at the moment he pressed his shutter.

Loch Ness meteor

He posted it to his company’s Facebook page, and it has since gone viral. In an interview with The Independent, he said, “It was a complete fluke. An absolute fluke.”

Asked whether the experience had inspired him to pursue his photography skills on a more professional level, Mr Macdonald said: “I think that’s as good as I’m going to get!”

Trust a Scot to be so self-effacing. An American would have said something like, “Well, it was a happy accident, but I wouldn’t have gotten the shot if I hadn’t put myself in the right place for it. Luck is 90% preparation, after all.”

But that isn’t the best part. This meteor was part of a shower that fell over northwest Scotland that night, and the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency fielded six calls within a 20-minute period, all from concerned citizens reporting sightings of emergency flares.

In the US, meteor showers with brilliant streaks like this one mean the local emergency services get calls about UFOs, or attacking fighter planes, or some other nefarious cause. In Scotland, they worry that some poor soul is in trouble and fired off a flare to call for help.

They really are a different sort.

(Hat tip to McKenna.)

Posted in astronomy, culture, Europe | 3 Comments

Wallpaper Tuesday

Cordon Caulle eruption

On 4 June 2011, a Chilean volcano named Cordon Caulle began to erupt, and continued to do so for nearly a year. But the first days were the most spectacular, with explosions, huge ash clouds, and eye-popping lightning.

Lightning within volcanic eruptions is caused by the bits and pieces of mountain torn up by the explosion—rock, ash, ice from snow caps or glaciers—colliding within the ash plume and producing static charges. Since there are so many particles being produced by the explosion, all rushing upward and outward at Ludicrous Speed, the number of collisions is very high and thus so is the amount of static charge—which translates to a lot of lightning. Some call this a “dirty thunderstorm.”

Photographer Francisco Negroni took this shot from Lago Ranco on the second night of the eruption. I hope he used a very long telephoto lens.

(Click the image to vulcanate.)

Posted in wallpaper | Leave a comment

Birthing a book

My publisher recently told me that publishing a book is like giving birth. I think it might be true. While some authors can put out two or three books a year, my gestation period was much longer than nine months. I can also attest to there being some pain involved. The worst part, though, is letting go.

This blog has been quiet lately because as my book neared its release date, the demands on my time intensified. I’ve never had a deadline quite like this one, where something I labored over for more than a year approached a point where I had to open my hands and let it fly, without any more edits, tweaks, fixes, or fussing. It’s not like wrapping up a research project and turning in the final report. When The Caphenon flies on March 14, it will be out there for people to read and pass judgment on. That judgment part is a tad nerve-racking.

The process has been fascinating, though, so I thought I’d share it for those who might be intrigued by a peek inside the world of publishing.

The Caphenon 500x800

The first people who saw my manuscript were my beta readers. I have several of them, all with different areas of expertise. They help me with fact checking, offer viewpoints I can’t achieve on my own, and give feedback on their own reception of the story arc and character interactions.

Beta readers are very familiar to me—I wrote five fanfic novels starting in 2002, so that part of the process is unchanged. What does change are the names and faces, because beta reading is a labor of love and most people can’t keep doing it year after year.

After the beta readers had their say, and I tweaked and fixed and added and subtracted to (almost) my heart’s content, the manuscript went to the line editor.


Quick explanation—there are different types of editors. A substantive editor is usually the first to touch a manuscript, because her job is the big picture stuff: plot and character consistency, point of view issues, extraneous text, etc. She hands off to the line editor (sometimes called the copy editor now, though in theory those are two different roles), who digs into the technical aspects: grammar, dialogue attributes, word repetition, fact checks, punctuation, spelling, and much more. After the line editor comes the proofreader, who goes through looking for consistency errors (for example, a character’s name being spelled two different ways), spelling errors, double spaces or periods…the small things that others may have missed.

Proofreaders were originally tasked with looking at a manuscript after it had gone to print—they were examining the first proof, hence the name—and catching things like page layout issues, inconsistent chapter title fonts, etc. These days the varying editor roles have really gotten blended, so a proofreader can end up copy editing, and a line editor may do substantive editing…it gets confusing. In a big publishing house, there could be four editors looking at a manuscript: substantive editor, line editor, copy editor, and finally proofreader. Small publishing houses cannot afford that, so the job titles get blurred.


Because I’m also a line editor for my publisher, I enjoy a lot of freedom in the editing process, which is a great perk. One of the Ylva editors and I look over each other’s work, and play what we call “editing ping pong.” When you start discussing the use of commas in compound predicates, you know you’re in the weeds.

After the line editing, my manuscript went to the proofreader, and from there to the graphic artist who does our layouts. He created the artwork for the chapter titles and laid out the manuscript, a process that can get pretty detailed. For instance, if the layout results in an orphan (a word that ends up by itself on a line at the end of a paragraph), it needs to be manually adjusted to resolve the issue.

Chapter 16


(An example of the chapter title art in The Caphenon.)


The graphic artist sent the manuscript back to the publisher for approval. The publisher sent it to me as well, so more eyeballs could check the final layout. We made notes on issues and sent it back for adjustments. The new version came back, we made a few more notes, and after one more round we were done. Now the layout could be sent to the printer…and it was time to create the e-books.

This is something new in the world of publishing. Layout for print editions is not the same as layout for e-books. Because there are so many different types of e-readers (Kindles, iPads, Nooks, other tablets), all of which may be independently adjusted for font, type size, etc. by the readers, there is no way to have a definitive layout in these formats. Instead, the text must flow freely depending on the device, the application being used, and the reader’s personal settings.

So two more layouts came my way, one in the .mobi format (Kindle) and one in the .epub format (everyone else). We checked these for errors as well—and found a few, because it’s unavoidable when running text through those converters—made notes, sent them back, received the adjusted version, and checked those over as well.

If you’re getting the impression by now that I’ve read my manuscript about eighty times in this process, you’re right.

But wait, there’s more! While all of this was going on, we were also dealing with the cover design. This starts early, because it requires the author to say, “I want X and Y and Z, but in purple,” and then the graphic designer sends a rough draft of A, B, and C in violet-blue, and the author says, “Um…kind of like that, except with this instead,” and it goes back and forth. This is a case of two artists with radically different ways of seeing the world trying to communicate their vision, and wow, it is hard. I’m frankly amazed at what our graphic artist produced for us based on my pathetic attempts at describing my vision. In fact…let me give you an example.

Here is what he produced after I sent him a hand-drawn outline of my starship.

Caphenon outline

And here is what we ended up with after several rounds of explanation and “right, but it needs to be higher here and flatter there and not so pointy” comments.


I saw a ship in my mind’s eye when I wrote my novel, but I didn’t have the capacity to see it in schematic-level detail, which is why describing it to someone trying to draw it was so hard. But seeing it here? Oh yeah—this is MY ship. In fact, after this drawing and the actual schematics were done, I ended up going back into my manuscript and changing a few things to match up with this wonderfully real image I could look at right there on my computer screen.

Once the book cover was done, it had to be produced in half a dozen different iterations. A print cover is not the same shape as an e-book cover (it’s much wider), and different e-readers take different sizes of cover images…and then there’s the print edition’s back cover and spine. Which brought up issues such as, do we put the series name on the spine, or just the book title? What about the series logo? Should it orient toward the back of the book to match the title, or should it orient toward the bottom of the book so that it will be right side up when the book is shelved?

When these details were decided, we actually had the necessary parts for a book.

Did I mention that while all of this was going on, I was also rewriting and editing the next two novels in the series?

But wait, there’s more! Because we didn’t stop with the production of a book. I’ve run my own website for thirteen years, housing my fanfic novels, so it was a no-brainer that I’d create a new website for this series. What startled me was my publisher’s willingness to step up and help with it. Her help, and that of our graphic artist, turned the new site into something much shinier than I could have managed alone. In fact, it’s more than shiny. It’s downright gorgeous. And I could go on about it, but I’ll just send you there instead.

It’s at Check out the maps, the caste shields…oh, and there’s a blog there, too. Yes, I am insane enough to run two of them. This one will continue to be my geek blog, while my Alsea blog will focus on writing—peeks into the process, updates, notes on software and other tools that make a difference, photographs of the piles of chocolate that fuel the whole process…you know, author stuff.

And in eight more days, you can order The Caphenon and read it for yourself instead of seeing me yap about it. If you’re really impatient, you can preorder the Kindle e-book on Amazon right now.

Posted in writing | 36 Comments